Pub group boosted as beer gardens lift off
- Credit: EMMA CABIELLES/CHESTNUT GROUP
For many years now we’ve been told the pub industry is in the doldrums — and the pandemic has hardly helped.
The narrative of pubs lost and pubs saved has become a familiar one — but some in the industry are seeing a very different picture.
Philip Turner, founder of the Chestnut Group, has been mopping up pubs like it’s been going out of fashion ever since he took on his local, the Packhorse Inn near Newmarket, and swung it around back in 2012.
He has never looked back — and the pandemic, if anything, has only added to his sense that this is an industry with a future — and a clear, positive one at that.
Today, the Chestnut Group owns 14 pubs — and counting. Two are very recent buys — the Carpenter’s Arms at Great Wilbraham, Cambridge, which will open in spring 2022, and The Maltings at Weybourne in north Norfolk. Across the 13 pubs which are open across Norfolk, Suffolk, Cambridgeshire and Essex, the group employs 500 staff.
And the boss has his sights set on gaining a much stronger foothold in Norfolk’s holiday heartland.
When work is finished on the 30-bed Maltings, it will include eight to 10 rooms for live-in staff as he ramps up a recruitment drive to help staffing during the critical summer months.
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The Eight Bells at Saffron Walden has just reopened after a three month closure caused by the industry’s chronic recruitment crisis and the need to disperse teams to support other holiday destination pubs in the chain during an exceptionally busy summer season.
His acquisition journey follows a pattern. In each case, Philip and his team take a long, hard look, spend a lot of money refitting and refurbishing them — adding guest rooms and other facilities where appropriate — then re-launch them under the Chestnut brand.
It’s been a highly successful formula — and one which he expects to continue as he snaps up more hospitality sites around the region.
Running a pub is not for the fainthearted. He — like all hospitality industry diehards — faces a host of seemingly insurmountable challenges.
Costs keep mounting, staff are hard to find and the stop-start nature of successive pandemic lockdowns have been enough to fell the stoutest of pub champions.
But Philip has stuck steadfastly to his own instincts about what makes a good and successful pub — and so far it has served him well.
One key element is location. He chooses top locations — or “destinations” — with strong tourism and visitor trade credentials. Sometimes these are in places hitherto hidden or overlooked — but can be on the well-trodden tourist trail.
The pandemic, he explains, has been a tale of two pub types — the leasehold wet-led town centre pub versus the mainly freehold food-led destination or country hostelry.
For the former, the crisis has been “an absolute disaster”, he admits. The latter has suffered during the periods of closure, but when they have opened and their customer base is unleashed, they have been “unbelievably busy”.
“We have obviously got quite a lot of coastal pub exposure in Norfolk and Suffolk. In the summer the trade in those venues was absolutely astronomical but we were finding it incredibly hard to recruit,” he says.
This has been the story for his chain. While open, the rate of the pubs’ sales growth has been limited only by the pub recruitment crisis and how many they can accommodate under strict coronavirus protocols.
The pandemic has led to innovation — and innovation has led to unexpected new customer bases emerging.
Chestnut pubs generally have big beer gardens and these have been exploited to the full to provide an inside-outside pub experience for customers keen to avoid enclosed spaces during the pandemic. Furs, teepees and other heated outdoor options have created new types of spaces for customers to enjoy — all year round.
The eye-opener has been the different customer groups these outdoor spaces have attracted. These are often younger than those which tend to congregate indoors and it has led to an explosion in customer growth.
With patrons no longer able to clamber over each other to order drinks at the bar, the chain has also brought its pubs into the digital era with ordering apps which have transformed sales rates.
“That dramatically increases the amount of drinks ordered on an hourly basis,” explains Philip, adding: “Utilising external trading spaces has been a game-changer.”
In spring, the pubs opened spring gardens. For the winter, it is winter gardens with a “skiing chalet” ambience complete with faux rugs and log burners. “It conjures up a different experience,” explains Philip.
As a result he’s seen a whopping 35% rise in 18 to 30-year-olds visiting the website. When Philip visited the Packhorse recently the teepee outside was packed with people in their 20s.
“They love it,” he says. It’s meant that a pub which historically appealed to the older generation was now crossing the age divide in a way he had never envisaged.
He’s also ensured that pub menus and drinks reflect their tastes and needs with vegan and gluten-free options. Cocktails and the introduction of Sapling Vodka drinks have also proved a magnet.
The crisis also resulted in the company setting up its own not-for-profit arm, the Giving Tree, which helps out community projects.
This year and last has been a learning curve, says Philip. “It’s forced us to look at business through a different lens.”